November 11, 2010

For Men’s Basketball, Everything and Nothing Has Changed

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They say what a difference a year makes. Though when it comes to the 2010-11 men’s basketball team, maybe that isn’t necessarily the case.

This time last year, the Red entered the 2009-10 season as the unanimous preseason favorite to capture the Ivy League title –– though that’s not to say there weren’t dissenting voices along the way.

Some national pundits maintained that Harvard and “Golden” Boy Jeremy Lin could throw a wrench in Cornell’s bid for a three-peat. Jeff Foote’s bold preseason prediction that the Red was a Sweet 16-caliber team was met with cynicism from virtually everyone not directly affiliated with the program.

In a way, not much has changed. As it opens non-conference play tonight against Albany, Cornell is picked to finish third in the Ancient Eight behind Princeton and Harvard –– with many Ivy League media representatives citing the graduation of the team’s own Big Three and departure of long-time skipper Steve Donahue as obvious deterrents to the Red’s quest for a four-peat.

Once again, Cornell goes into the season with something to prove, and, once again, the prognosticators –– according to current members of the Red –– are overlooking one glaring intangible.

“Every guy on this team knows nothing else but winning Ivy League championships,” said junior point guard and tri-captain Chris Wroblewski, Cornell’s only returning starter. “We know what it takes to make it four in a row.”

And as for the preseason polls that say otherwise?

“I can’t say [they’re] accurate; in our eyes, we’re still the ones to beat,” said senior forward and tri-captain Adam Wire.

While Cornell may have lost its coach to Boston College (and its most decorated senior class in program history to graduation), one thing the Red hasn’t lost is its commitment to putting in the effort on and off the court in order to build a championship team.

“Both practices from last year and this year are really competitive –– guys getting after it,” said Wroblewski, who was also an All-Ivy honorable mention in 2009-10.

The Red’s hard-hat attitude has not gone unnoticed by first-year head coach Bill Courtney, who acknowledged that “They’re a special group … in that you don’t have to coach effort as much you can coach basketball … they’re a group that comes in every day … and gets their work done.”

Courtney, who comes to Cornell after serving a one-year stint as an assistant at Virginia Tech, is largely credited with recruiting the core of players who enabled George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006.

In comparing his coaching style to that of Donahue, Courtney pointed to their readiness to utilize the 3-point line –– a rational strategy considering Cornell led the nation in 3-point percentage (42.9) in 2009-10, with Wroblewski pacing the Ivy League at 45.4 percent.

“[Steve] built this team to shoot 3’s, so we’re certainly not going to deviate from that plan,” Courtney said. “I think you’ll see similarities in the toughness that the teams play with. His teams were very tough-minded and tough on the defensive end. … We’ll probably do a few more things defensively to dictate tempo, but a lot of it will be similar.”

Wroblewski echoed this sentiment in describing what he’s seen from Courtney thus far: “Coach Donahue and Coach Courtney both are promoting a fun brand of basketball –– an up-tempo [style that dictates] we’re going to shoot a lot of 3’s.”

“Defensively, it’s a little different,” he added. “Coach Courtney wants us to be a little more aggressive.”

As for how the coaches compare when it comes to conducting practice on a day-to-day basis, “We run a lot more suicides under Coach Courtney,” Wroblewski said with a laugh. “The drills are definitely very different. There’s definitely more of an emphasis on defense; not that defense wasn’t a focus last year, it’s just this year I think that’s his No. 1 focus and main priority going into the season –– that we understand what he wants us to do on the defensive end.”

While defense may be the priority in 2010-11, one area of concern for this year’s squad will undoubtedly prove replacing the offensive production of Foote, three-time First-team All-Ivy selection Louis Dale ’10 and Cornell all-time leading scorer Ryan Wittman ’10.

With the exception of Wroblewski, no returner averaged more than 12 minutes per contest last season.

That said, Courtney has liked what he’s seen from his veteran players thus far –– namely senior forward and tri-captain Aaron Osgood and senior guard Max Groebe.

According to Courtney, Osgood –– who sat out the first two weeks of practice with a hip injury –– has “made some strides and has performed well” since his return to the court.

As for Groebe, he’s “had some days where he’s really shot the ball well,” Courtney said. “When he’s shooting like that, he becomes very, very dangerous.”

Indeed, after failing to connect on his first 3-point attempt in this year’s annual Red/White scrimmage, Groebe did not miss from beyond the arc for the remainder of the contest, easily finishing with well over 20 points. Last season, Groebe shot 56.1 percent from downtown in 27 appearances with the Red.

But for all the returning veterans who feel they have something to contribute in 2010-11, there exists a host of new faces bent on cracking the rotation.

One newcomer that both Wroblewski and Courtney singled out as having the ability to make an immediate impact was junior guard Andrew Ferry, a transfer from Palm Beach State College. As a sophomore captain, he averaged 18.7 points per game and shot 45.5 percent from beyond the arc en route to finishing in the top 20 nationally in junior college.

According to Wroblewski, Ferry has already proved his worth, hitting  “six or seven 3’s” against Lafayette in last Saturday’s closed-door scrimmage.

“Andrew Ferry has fit in really well off the court, and then on the court I think he also fits into Coach Courtney’s style … very disciplined player, understands the game, plays good defense, but can also shoot lights-out,” Wroblewski said.

“If he doesn’t start he’ll be sixth man,” Courtney said. “He’ll definitely be in the top of the rotation. … We’re hoping for some big things from him.”

Courtney also pointed to the 6-8 Anthony Gatlin –– a transfer from Centenary College who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations –– as an older newcomer who could see major playing time in 2010-11.

“We’re trying to get him to … become very aggressive as a rebounder, because he is so athletic,” Courtney said.

Also in the mix for some minutes will be freshmen Manny Sahota, Jake Matthews and Dwight Tarwater.

“I think it says something about your program when you are not forced to play freshmen,” Courtney said. “That’s when you know you have a pretty good program, because if you’re forced to play freshmen, usually that inexperience hurts you a little bit.”

The fact that Cornell does not have to rely on its youth will undoubtedly help the Red against an upperclassmen-laden squad like Princeton, which returns five of its top scorers and three of its top rebounders –– “guys with tremendous experience and a certain style of play that befuddles people,” according to Courtney.

“You look at returning that team intact, and you have to say they’re the favorite,” he added.

As for the preseason No. 2 pick, “[Harvard’s] talent is so deep. They’re probably the most talented team in the league,” Courtney said. “If they can come back from injury, I think they might be able to put something together.”

Courtney mentioned Brown and Yale as “teams that can surprise,” and also alluded to the return of Penn’s Tyler Bernardini as a factor that could make life interesting for the other Ivies.

“It’s an exciting race shaping up, and I’m hoping we can be right in the thick of things,” Courtney concluded.

As a team that has known nothing but winning, one cannot expect that to change overnight.

So while the “basketball house” may have moved from Dryden to Linden, Groebe may have usurped Wire as the team’s wing-eating champion, and suicides may have replaced shooting drills, “the culture [has stayed] the same,” according to Osgood. “We’re all so close as a team and we still do the same things we did last year –– it just seems like new faces.”

Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown